Lessons from my 2 year old: Why husband doesn’t notice your new dress

Ella (2 1/2 years old) is jumping on the trampoline in her new skirt from Israel which she refuses to take off.

Her best friend David (3 1/2 years old) comes down to the garden and sits on the grass showing me his new truck books with some car named Mater in them.

Ella stands on the end of the trampoline: “David, look at my new flower skirt, it’s pretty”, she squeals at him.

David looks up at her quizzically and after a few moments looks back into his book.

Ella shouts louder: “David, look at my beautiful skirt”.

David looks up again and is confused. He scrunches his eyes together in concentration and then he goes blank. She may as well be talking to Chinese. He returns to his book.

This happens a few times. Ella is desperate for her best friend to appreciate her new skirt which she loves so much.

But David doesn’t get it. He tries to, but just has no clue how to respond. Her pretty new skirt is out of his universe.

She eventually gives up; and they both go fight over the blue bike.

This small interaction, almost insignificant, stays with me all day.

I imagine this scenario in 25 years from now.

Girl is married, and she gets a new shirt. As she did at 2 years old, she assumes & wishes that the world around loves and appreciates what she does. So she expects that her husband will compliment her new shirt. But of course he doesn’t.

Depending on her level of maturity and self-worth, it could go many ways. It could easily turn into hurt and anger and disappointment. It could spiral into defensiveness and disconnection.

“If he really cared about me, he would notice”

“If he loved me, he would remember…..”

Yet this toddler interaction is the truth. There is no malice or cruelty involved. There is no intention or viciousness. David tries to understand. He looks up and hears her words. But he just has no ability to respond.

And likewise, Ella takes no offence. She tried a few times, and then moved onto a subject they could connect over.

Imagine. Imagine our relationships if these disconnects were handled with such neutrality. Imagine if our spouses/friends/parents’ limitations were simply experienced for what they are and forgiven in the moment.

And Ella? David and her play/jump/fight happily for a while, and later she shows her new skirt to her granny and together they obsess over the flowers and the colours.

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Why I want to live and die like Oliver Sacks

My tears surprise me. I am reading Oliver Sacks’ New York Times op-ed (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/opinion/oliver-sacks-on-learning-he-has-terminal-cancer.html?_r=0) where he shares that his cancer has metastasized to his liver and in a few months he will leave this world.

These are not the tears I cry when I hear of a young mother stricken with incurable cancer, or a teenager plucked from this world tragically before his prime. In his 81 years Sacks has achieved dazzling success and acclaim as both a scientist and an author.  His ground-breaking discoveries in the field of neuro-science have transformed modern medicine’s understanding of the brain. Hailed by The New York Times as “the poet laureate of medicine,” Sacks will leave the world of both medicine and literature infinitely richer.

It is the fullness of his life which moves me. It is specifically the fact that he stands facing death with not a whisper of regret in his words. Quite the opposite, his words are dripping with fulfilment and gratitude. Till his last day, he chooses to embrace the world: “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me,” he writes. “I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

I cry because I, too, will one day stand at the edge of my life. As unwilling as I am to think of death, I know it will inevitably happen. But what terrifies me most is to stand at the brink of my life and to have not lived fully. I am so full at the moment, brimming with dreams and plans and hopes and goals. I want so much – for myself, for my relationships, for my children. Yet I am constantly unsure that I will get there. I find myself pushing off my dreams to another day.

Oliver Sacks does not live in the world of “another day.” He faces death with courage and serenity because he is living a life replete with vitality. To stand at the edge of the this world, looking back with regrets and saying to yourself, I had dreams but I was afraid. I held grudges because I was too proud to let it go. I wanted to do so much but I got distracted. I thought there was more time – that is frightening.

Often one hears of stories of near-fatal events where a person was miraculously saved from an illness or an accident. A bucket list is written and dramatic changes to their lives are made. Relationships are prioritized, old feuds are settled and a heightened awareness of purpose and the sacredness of each moment is awakened. Do we have to wait for a tragedy to realign our goals?

Each of us is born with infinite potential for greatness. Yet we hold back. The what-ifs, the have-tos, the should-haves often cloud our choices. Sometimes we don’t examine our choices fully. We let the expectations and social norms dictate. Our dreams remained buried among fears and complacency.

So reading Sacks’ reflections as he nears the end of his time in the world, I am envious. He is confident that he has given his all. “But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written.” To be overflowing with gratitude in the face of death can only be a result of life lived with constant appreciation of the blessings.

So with the courage, engagement and creativity that he lived his life, he approaches his death. The self he has cultivated – the self of love and gratitude is what he will carry through the rest of the days on this planet.

The tears I shed tell of a profound yearning for such a life. I imagine of myself at the end of my days as an old woman. My limbs may be frail and weary; and my face may be wrinkled, but I dream that I will hold a deep satisfaction that I gave my all. That I was brave and I loved and contributed what only I was able to. I want to know without a shadow of a doubt that I did all I could have done.

Why I don’t hate beggars: The existential crisis of being privileged

The dry summer sun beats down through my open window.  I impatiently push my sunglasses up my sweaty nose, cursing my broken air-conditioning. I look at the clock for the hundredth time as the traffic crawls slowly in the peak time along William Nicol Drive, inching towards the highway off ramp. The informal trading platform alongside me is also at its peak. Offers for chilled cold drinks, cell phone chargers and key rings inundate me.   One skinny beggar with a hat catches my eye. He wears a plaid jacket and coloured shirt with a bowler hat jauntily at an angle. His outfit would be bizarrely stylish on another stage. His eyes twinkle gently, and he looks at me and says “Please madam”. Apologetically, I tell him honestly that I don’t have any money on me. I am in a generous mood and I make eye contact. He looks at me again, pleadingly says “Even some brown cents”.

“Oh, they are all drug addicts”. My eyebrows raise, this is a new theory I haven’t heard. “Don’t give them money – they will use it for drugs”. So continues the typical regurgitated South African conversation one lazy summer afternoon; our stomachs stuffed with lemon and herb braaied chicken and chutney lamb chops; pap oozing with tomato gravy. The blue pool glimmers in front of us; the kids splash excitedly in the cool water. Everyone chimes in with their own anecdotes of beggars who throw away food; women who rent babies to evoke pity; or who fake disability to manipulate generosity. Judgementalism, unashamed assumptions and separatism pervade. It streams into heated debates about car guards, peddlers and hawkers. The responses vary dramatically depending on the diversity of the group.

The factual ones will quote the newspaper article exposing these people as a sham – who rent babies to elicit sympathy or who fake disability to evoke pity.  The angry ones will demand they get a job, and refer to the neighbourhood beggar who was offered a packing job but turned it down for his current more lucrative begging station. The socially aware one will chastise the rest, telling how they carry bags of apples in the car for the occasion. The more socially active and conscious offer their practical solutions to answer this pressing need on every corner. The morally conscious member will tell how they give to car guards but not to beggars. Some ensure they always carry small change, or a bag of apples, or sandwiches. Yet I question whether any of these responses are the most authentic ones available. Even the most pragmatic of solutions does not answer the existential crisis we face daily.

What is actually being asked of us in a society where no day goes past without encountering tens of hungry beggars, barefoot children, peddlers and sales people? As you stop by the robot, you are surrounded by enticing offers. A blind beggar shakes his tin noisily by your window. A fruit peddlar parades his sun drenched mangoes by your window with tempting words. A homeless lady and her infant sit on the pavement with her tin, her sad eyes desperately hoping your will throw her a rand. Living in Johannesburg the variables differ slightly – sometimes it’s the car guard outside the deli shop, or a trolley assistant by the grocery store. But the request is the same. We are asked for something – charity, payment for watching our car or packing our groceries.

The responses to these demands are diverse. There are those of us who shut our windows and stare straight ahead; willing them into oblivion, waiting for the robot to turn green, freeing us from facing these greedy and obnoxious beggars. Some of us fumble for change, and if we find a spare coin, graciously give. Some smile apologetically. Perhaps we may angry; accusing these people of taking advantage of our pity, preying on the well-to-do middle class sympathies. Their insistence and persistence enrage us; evoking irritation and resentment.

But I do not believe that anger is what drives our feelings. I think it is shame. We are ashamed because of our privilege. We cannot explain why we were born privileged; or why we have access to private healthcare and schooling. We know that we have nothing but the grace of G-d to deserve the comfortable 21st century living we bask in. Living in South Africa, we each reap the benefits of apartheid. Even those of us born post-democracy are still floating on the magic carpet of privatised education and opportunity. These truths are uncomfortable, unanswerable and annoying.  So we close our windows, close our eyes, look anywhere but into the eyes of the person asking something we cannot give. We play with the radio; read the newspaper headlines or check our cell phones. In the words of Pink Floyd, we choose to be “comfortably numb” over the alternative inner awkwardness. 

 We choose this numbness because we know we cannot offer a solution. We are vulnerable in our inability to help solve the pains of these people. Because even if we give every one we encounter a coin or an apple there are thousands of poor & hungry people in the next city, in the next road and in the next township. Every continent bears witness to the poverty which plagues the majority of mankind, the high mortality rate which is so easily avoidable, and the harsh living conditions where food is scarce and running water a luxury. And from our air-conditioned cars we realize that we are helpless. We realize that as much as we do, we will always live a good and protected life. There is no justification for this inequality. Perhaps we want to change things, but can’t and are therefore embarrassed by our helplessness. We do not want to watch, to acknowledge their hardships, and feel their pain.

Yet our society does not allow for us to ignore this reality. In a country with the highest wealth gap in the world; third world living and first world influenza are intertwined. Driving out of Sandton’s manicured estates, rag-dressed children begging stand at every intersection and shacks litter the horizon.

So I believe that while we are asked to open our hands repetitively; we are foremost being asked to open our hearts. It is painful and heart-breaking to acknowledge and feel empathy for the suffering of another human being; especially in the face of our luxury.  It is easier to blame these people; to accuse them of being lazy and not taking available employment. It makes us feel better to point out the ones who are scamming us and conning us. But I think a society where begging is more fruitful than valid employment is a tragic one. I think the embarrassment and loss of potential actualized is a result of a broken world we live in. I think that each beggar, car guard and hawker offers us a chance to own an uncomfortable truth – that there exists so much pain and suffering in the world; and we cannot solve it all. It is hard even to acknowledge another person’s tragedy. We shy away from funerals, forcing ourselves to go. Visiting a terminally ill friend or relative is unbearable for most. It is horrible to acknowledge another’s humanity; their fragility and the fact that nothing is guaranteed.  It takes vulnerability on both sides to look into someone’s eyes and say “I see you – your pain, your need and your suffering. I cannot offer you much, but I feel your hardships”. 

Even though this vulnerability may terrify us, for me this is the most authentic response to the tragic reality. Each beggar reminds me of a world beyond the Glenhazel ghetto, beyond world class medical care and beyond privatized security. Each beggar offers the chance to open your hearts to those who have so much less. Each car guard offers the opportunity to imagine another’s life, their reality and show compassion on his/her humanity. Each fermented mango peddler asks, can you risk seeing me for who I am, for who I can be and for what I am going through. A chance to move past our arrogance, our fear, our bubble of opulence. Each encounter probes whether you will choose compassion or justice; will you let your heart be opened and be vulnerable to the struggles of the other?  

And of this opening of a heart will come a new generation of South Africans. As a parent, I am now extremely conscious of the example I am setting for my daughter. Preaching and teaching kindness will not create a generation of givers and agents of change. Brene Brown, one of my favourite catalysts for authenticity says in ‘Daring Greatly’ “Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting. In terms of teaching our children to dare greatly in the “never enough” culture, the question isn’t so much “Are you parenting the right way?” as it is: “Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?” 

So if we give the insignificant brown cents to the man at the intersection, then we are on the way to being the adult we want our children to be. By doing this we can show our children how to be open to the pain of others and not be afraid of feeling empathy. And then I am certain we will raise children are sensitive to the plight of those who have less, and grateful for all their own blessings. And there will be a generation of where this no “other” or “them”, but where each person is honoured for his humanity just the way he is.


One year old: Motherhood rocks your world – emerging from the earthquake

As Ella’s first birthday approaches, the overall reaction is identical: “I can’t believe it’s a year already”, people gush excitedly. I smile feebly and change the subject.

Because I can definitely believe it’s a year. It has been the longest year of my life. In fact, I can’t believe that it has only been a year. Your first child rocks your world, they say. And rock it did. With the force of a seismic earthquake.

Nothing prepared me for the sheer physical exhaustion. That bone-piercing, nauseating and all-consuming tiredness. The use of sleep deprivation as a torture method resonated deeply. One of my earliest memories of those first few days was when we took Ella to the clinic for her new-born vaccinations. On the way home, I turned to my husband and with desperation asked if we could just leave her there for a few days so I could sleep a little bit.
But even more than the shock to my body, was the shock to my identity. No amount of preparation or reading ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting’ would tell me that from being an independent career woman, I would suddenly shackled to an indecipherable, and demanding new-born. A worshiper of the rational, I read Baby Sense and The Baby Whisperer over and over. But rational is something new-borns are not. I would swaddle and push and rock and pat and swaddle again. A non-conformist from birth, Ella refused to sleep the 18 out of 24 hours as the books promised.
My emotional world was out of my control. Nothing prepared me for the terror I would feel at four months when Ella refused a bottle, and I was not able to nurse her. Her dry nappies would send me into a state of panic. I would sob and sob as she woke up through the night, desperately hungry. My intellectual pursuits, and even my word-finding ability, dwindled to nothing. Weekly Parsha chaburas disintegrated. Sunday morning sleep-ins and yoga classes were a thing of a bygone era. I was lost. I did not know who I was anymore.
And above all, there was the crippling guilt. I desperately wanted and needed to be a good mother. I needed to be perfect. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t in love with Ella from the second I saw her. “Are you loving it?”, people would ask in those first few weeks. I would nod and crumble internally. I thought that I needed to be ecstatic, euphoric and blissful every second.
My demands to be the perfect mother took a toll. It’s no wonder that I was desperate to escape. A trip to the store would leave me ridden with guilt. What kind of mother doesn’t want to be with their own child, I chastised myself. I used to dread coming home from work. Her eyes would judge me, and say, you are not doing enough, you are a bad mother.
My world shrank. I didn’t read a book in six months. Work, baby, bath, bottle washing, bedtime, night-wakings, repeat.
Yes, my world was rocked. I wanted to love this sweet baby, but I didn’t know how to let myself just love her. Mostly I was scared. I lived in fear of neglecting her, of not being there for her, and not being enough. I interpreted her neutral regular infant activities as admonishment of my useless mothering ability.  My fear paralysed me, and the box I was trapped in was dark.
My relationship with G-d disintegrated. The woman’s lack of obligation for formal prayer in Jewish law pacified my guilt. I could have made the time. But I had nothing to say to G-d anymore. I had no lofty thoughts, no musings about His world and my place in it. My mental real estate was invaded by squatters who left no room for deep pondering. It was occupied by nappy-types and sleep schedules and vaccinations and bottle washing. I didn’t trust myself as a mother, so how could I trust G-d for giving me this child?
On the outside I looked perfect. But I doubted myself. I compared myself to friends who melded seamlessly into motherhood. I judged myself for not being like them. I demanded instantaneous perfection from myself.  
Yes, my world was rocked. The foundations of my existence crumbled to the ground. Independence, rationality, the need for predictability, mental acuity were among the debris.
And amidst the ruins, slowly we emerged. With any stability removed, I confronted the darkest parts of myself. I came face to face with demons buried deep within. I learned that motherhood is a journey, and that compassion to myself along the way was required. I learned to be fully present with Ella, silencing my demands of how a good mother should be. I learned to rejoice in the small victories, and to take joy in Ella’s excitement in the world around her. I learned to silence the accusations, and to take in the obvious love Ella offered me over and over. Despite all my misgivings, she trusted me implicitly. And bit by bit, I learned to trust myself in the process.

With Ella’s birth, my centre of gravity was uprooted. In the months which followed, a new balance was found. But this one was different than before. This new self is more gentle, more flexible and more playful.  Yes, my definition of self radically altered. I saw myself originally as a thinker. A meditator. A philosopher. Practical needs were secondary to my need to make sense of the world. I gave to others, but in a limited way. I spent a lot of time reading and researching and studying and just being. This past year, I have become a giver. Every moment of my day is shadowed by my daughter’s needs. I have become more selfless than I ever knew possible. 
And in this shaky center of gravity, I redefine myself. I have learned that I don’t need to be perfect. I learn to forgive myself for the times when I am not the mother I intend to be. And I learn that we are growing together. As Ella learns to crawl and walk and talk, I too learn how to go about this world of motherhood. I have learned that despite all my flaws and fears and ambivalence, my daughter loves me fullheartedly. I have learned that it’s okay to want time apart. I am figuring how to make time for myself again, and seeing how that time re-energizes me as a mother.As we negotiate distance and closeness, and the more I accept myself, the more I enjoy her.
I have learned that prayer can be in the form of singing Modeh Ani with my baby as I dress her, and thanking Hashem for her limbs and faculties as she giggles excitedly while I tickle her. I have learned that my informal prayers are deeper than before as I beg Hashem to watch over my beautiful daughter, so innocent and pure and small.
Nothing would prepare me for the earthquake which rocked my world. And nothing could prepare me for the love I feel when I rock Ella to sleep in my arms, and she settles contentedly into my chest. Or for the burst of joy I would feel as her face crinkles up into a gigantic smile when she sees me for the first time in the morning. Being her mother has revealed a tenderness, a softness and a vulnerability which was very hidden.

Yes, my world was rocked. There were many days and moments when I doubted I would ever stand on solid ground again. There were countless times when I questioned if I was cut out for motherhood. Yet in the ruins of the earthquake and the loss of what I was, a more mature structure has been born. This building is wiser, more compassionate and more giving. She smiles as giggles with her baby on the floor, and dances with her on the way to the bath. 

It’s been a very long year. There has been a lot of growing, changing and adapting on both my and Ella’s side. There has been birth and death and re-birth. There have been more laughter, more tears and more smiles than ever before. But mostly, within all the hardships, there has been more blessing than I ever thought possible, and more love than I ever dreamed of.